Rwanda and the ICC: Playing Politics with Justice – By Stephen A. Lamony


Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo has called the ICC “a political court” and said that Rwanda has “never believed in its jurisdiction”.

Rwanda’s stated position on the International Criminal Court (ICC) is highly critical. Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo called the ICC “a political court” and said that Rwanda has “never believed in its jurisdiction”. In 2008, President Kagame called the ICC a “fraudulent institution” that is “made for Africans and poor countries” who did not realize what they were signing up for when they ratified the Rome Statute. However, the clear-cut stance expressed in these statements seems to be blurred by Rwanda’s recent decision to facilitate the transfer of indicted militia leader Bosco Ntaganda to The Hague in March of this year.

This is not to say that Rwanda’s rhetoric has changed: during a Security Council debate on conflict prevention in Africa in April, Rwanda blocked the inclusion of any positive language for the work of the ICC in a presidential statement. In May, President Kagame said that Rwanda “cannot support an ICC that condemns crimes committed by some and not others or imposes itself on democratic processes or the will of sovereign people”. The apparent contradiction between Rwanda’s words and actions can only begin to be understood by examining its relationship with the ICC within its political and historic context.

Rwanda has not always so loudly opposed the idea of a permanent international criminal court. During the Rome Conference that created the ICC, it explicitly supported the creation of such an institution, and even favored giving it some powers that the ICC does not possess, such as the authority to use the death penalty for the most heinous crimes. Neither did it speak negatively of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), but rather pointed out that an international criminal court “would not obviate the need for ad hoc tribunals, which should retain their jurisdictional competence and continue to receive support”.

However, Rwanda chose not to sign the Rome Statute as it was finally negotiated, and has since become one of the ICC’s harshest critics. It has also employed more negative language for the ICTR. Former Justice Minister Tharcisse Karugarama said his country felt “betrayed” by the ICTR and current Justice Minister Johnston Busingye claimed that the ICTR had fallen short of its potential, while the community-based system of “gacaca courts” have been a big success.

In theory, Rwanda’s official position can be summed up by saying that it supports international justice, but simply thinks it has not been done well. In an address given in Addis Ababa in May of this year, President Kagame said that an international justice system “needs to be free of political interference and uphold the principle of sovereign equality of states, an objective Rwanda believes the ICC has completely failed to accomplish”. Therefore, Rwanda claims to be an advocate for ending impunity but critical of the alleged political maneuvering behind the ICC.

In reality, however, Rwanda’s own actions and relationship with the ICC are also very much motivated by political interests. Many have argued that the real reason Rwanda does not want to sign the Rome Statute is so its military commanders and political leaders cannot be held accountable to the ICC for their involvement in supporting rebel groups in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). These fears are not totally unfounded. In August 2012, opposition groups from Rwanda and the DRC asked the ICC to investigate Paul Kagame for alleged war crimes in eastern Congo. However, up until recently, on a broader scale, Kagame has had a positive international image as the leader who got Rwanda back on its feet after the 1994 genocide, and has been regarded as a key Western ally in the region.

International opinion started to turn recently after the M23 rebel militia took control of Goma in eastern DRC and the United Nations published a report stating that Rwanda had created the group and commands it. Some of Rwanda’s European donors cut back on their aid, and the US warned Rwanda against continued interference in the DRC.

In the following months, the M23 militia experienced severe fragmentation of its leadership: violence broke out between camps led by rivals Bosco Ntaganda and Sultani Makenga. There were reports that Makenga was in negotiations with the Congolese government for a peace deal, and Rwanda allegedly pressured M23 officers to side with Makenga, seeing an opportunity to end a costly war by reintegrating him and his men into the regular army.  After suffering a defeat at the hands of Makenga’s men and feeling that his life was in danger, Ntaganda surrendered himself to the US embassy in Kigali.

Given its openly critical position towards the ICC, it came as a surprise when Rwanda agreed to facilitate Ntaganda’s transfer to The Hague. Since then, however, many have questioned Rwanda’s claim that it had no prior knowledge of Ntaganda’s intentions to give himself up. Rather, it has been argued that Rwanda – with the support of the US – in fact carefully orchestrated the surrender. A Rwandese newspaper claims that Ntaganda was coached on how he should defend himself at the Court, with strict instructions not to sell out Kagame but rather act as “Kagame’s ambassador at the ICC”.

Should these allegations be true, it is not difficult to imagine Rwanda’s motivations. With international pressure rising, being seen as cooperating with the ICC to put a leader of the M23 militia on trial could be a way to defuse accusations of Rwanda’s support for the group and portray Kagame as an advocate for justice. By making a deal with Ntaganda and reassuring him that he will have all the support he needs to be exonerated of the charges, Ntaganda would be less likely to reveal the extent of Kagame’s and Rwanda’s involvement in the DRC. As a demonstration of cooperation, it could also be taken as a sign of good faith in order to reassure its foreign allies so that aid will return to previous levels. Furthermore, with the recent signing of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Region in February, Western powers are more likely to be interested in ending the war and promoting stability – both of which require Rwanda’s cooperation – rather than determined to prove that Kagame should be tried at the ICC.

In this context, the facilitation of Ntaganda’s surrender and transfer by Rwanda should not be taken as a sign of a shifting ideological position on the ICC – which remains oppositional – but rather as part of a more complex political strategy.

Stephen Lamony is a Senior Adviser, AU, and UN & Africa Situations at the Coalition for the International Criminal Court.

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9 thoughts on “Rwanda and the ICC: Playing Politics with Justice – By Stephen A. Lamony

  1. This is not convincing in the least. Lamony starts off quite coherently but halfway through he is clearly struggling to make a point. Any criticism of the criticism raised about the ICC must address the undeniable bias of the court in indicting Africans only. Speculating about Rwanda’s reasons doesn’t address this glaring anomaly and is unnecessary because Rwanda’s reasons for opposing the court have never been a secret – I have yet to see a grown up response to this opposition.

  2. Before making all the sorts of nonsense, the author would have, instead, indicate how Rwanda/Kagame’s critics against ICC are baseless. For example where Rwanda/Kagame says it (ICC) prosecutes only Africans, the author should prove him wrong by indicating other non Africans who are either in its custody or who’re being prosecuted. Or at least to defend his position, I expected him to indicate how in ICC’s procedures so far, the world seems to be full of ‘African Criminals’! I would expect him to distinguish the crimes committed by Ntaganda and those committed by Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan! I would expect him to explain how in International Justice’s view, French soldiers can come in Rwanda and Plan, Train and Execute genocide in broad day light, and get away unpunished but when M23 soldiers establish a roadblock in its controlled territory makes it an unforgivable criminal offence!
    I expected the author to educate more on how ICC considers two similar cases but focuses on one but ignores the other, take a case of DRC and Syria! In DRC Ntaganda was indicted for alleged crimes against humanity, and I am not against that, as I am against impunity whatsoever. However, I wonder what happened to ICC in Syria, where footages of a rebel leader eating gov’t soldier’s organs spread all over. Didn’t the info reach to Bensouda’s good office?
    How are crimes against C Taylor in Liberia for supporting rebel groups in S Leone different from those today being committed by gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, etc where they supply arms to rebels fighting a legitimate government in Syria? Why doesn’t the good ICC look beyond those “African Criminals” who’re always accused of fomenting crises in Africa, and piont a finger at those western networks that manufacture and supply illegal arms in Africa.
    In my view, the author, like all others pursuing imperialists’ interests on this good continent, is simply trying to depict Kagame (as usual of course) as another African dictator who fears that once in his lifetime this colonial institution may prosecute him. However, that doesn’t carry away the reality for everyone whose eyes are still functioning that the ICC was established to bring to knees any African who dares to oppose the dictates of western masters.

  3. Pingback: Rwanda and the ICC: Playing Politics with Justice – AFRICANARGUMENTS- NewsPIC Rwanda

  4. Generally speaking, I believe that we as Africans have a serious problem, we love blaming other races or people for our self created problems.

    Well documented facts indicate that African countries were involved in establishing the International Criminal Court and the Rome Statute since more than 20 years ago. Delegations from Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland, and Tanzania & South Africa participated in discussions as early as 1993 when the International Law Commission (ILC) presented a draft statute to the United Nations General Assembly for consideration.

    47 African states participated in drafting of the Rome Statute of the ICC; many of pushed for the adoption of the final Statute. Most of them voted in favor of adopting the Rome Statute and establishing the ICC.

    It is note worthy that when African states started participating in the Rome Conference they did so because they felt that the world failed Africa and let the 1994 genocide in Rwanda occur. Therefore many African states willingly joined the ICC because they did not want a repeat of the 1994.

    Now that the ICC is functioning and has issued arrest warrants for some African leaders, who consider they are untouchables, you hear cries that the court is a political institution or other leaders accuse it of imperialism. 50 years after independence is this an argument which my brothers and sisters can sustain? If other Africans have not witnessed or experienced the pain from abuses committed by our leaders and senior government officials, I have. I will not sit by an allow me rights of those of my relatives, children & grand children be trampled on simply because other Africans want me to cheer on/ close my eyes and say all is well in Africa when clearly some thing is wrong with our leaders Really, Is the court a tool of imperialism? Who took the 5 cases (in Uganda, DRC, CAR, Mali & Ivory coast) to the court? The situation in Darfur, Sudan was referred to the ICC by the United Nations Security Council ( a political body), African Council members Benin & Tanzania voted to refer the situation to the ICC, Algeria Abstained. The situation in Libya, was referred to the ICC by the UNSC too, the decision to refer Libya was made unanimously by the UNSC, including South Africa and Nigeria.

    In Kenya, the ICC prosecutor used his own initiative, to request the initiation of an investigation in Kenya, after Kenyan members of parliament had failed on two different occasions to establish a special tribunal.

    As Africans, we should take ownership of our mistakes and set up our own institutions where we can hold every one accountable. I am told there is an African Court which is meant to do that. This is a good idea; I am concerned that our leaders will start arguing that they should be above the law.
    Have we soon forgotten what happened in Libya where Africans were being killed and the AU and African leaders did nothing?
    If Africa is to progress then we must steer clear of bad advice from non African PhD holders whose only goal is to show they know more about Africa than Africans, they DO NOT CARE ABOUT AFRICA.

  5. The ICC is biased and there is no running away from it, however urgent Africa’s need to end impunity may be. Stephen Lamony has tried dangling many red herrings before us and this is just his latest attempt. The ICC is a failure of its own making, it is a project by western powers, another imperial experiment by them on the African Continent. Having left the Continent in an economic and social disarray since slavery and the colonisation, they are determined to keep us in perpetual servitude. They want to continue visiting mayhem upon us through ‘legitimate’ ‘international institutions’ crafted to continue the process of weakening and dividing Africans and striking fear in our leaders so they are forced to do the bidding of the imperialists. It is not lost on us that the western world controls the major news organisations, most of which are mere mouthpieces of western political machinations, Some so-called human rights organisations are just part of this well oiled machinery. For decades they have been banging on about democracy in Africa when what we most urgently need there is Economic emancipation, something which those of our leaders who are courageous enough to attempt get wrongfully vilified for by western media and ‘human rights’ organisations or assassinated by western governments or western backed mercenaries without the mutest noise from these ‘international’ organisations. It is therefore not remotely implausible that if western governments put their full machinery to work, they can very easily topple any legitimately chosen African government with spurious allegations and charges via the ICC. We need African leaders with backbone to fend off this latest assault on African freedom. We want justice, but not at the cost of our hard won liberty and dignity as a race. That is a false dichotomy.The ICC and its owners want us to make a false choice between justice and freedom. That only demonstrates the level of contempt that western powers have for Africans. Mr Lamony’s repeated suggestions that we accept this contemptuous treatment, allegedly “for the sake of justice” is quite eyebrow raising to say the very least.

  6. There is definitely a lot that is wrong with Africa even if some Africans do not want to admit it and resort to cheap shots such as name calling or attacking fellow Africans who do not share their same views by exposing what they believe is wrong with our motherland.

    History reminds us that, in the 1980’ and 90’s many of the current breed of African leaders fought against elected presidents because they felt that their human rights were being violated.
    It is ironical now that the same breed of leaders rally together to protect their peers who are committing crimes against their citizens
    Haters of the ICC in Africa may want to educate themselves a little bit by reading the views of other Africans before venting their anger or expressing their intolerance of views that are different from theirs.
    For example in a recent article on the proposed International criminal jurisdiction of the African Court: some problematic aspects, the first expert on regional mechanisms of the AU, Dr. Ademola Abbas (a Nigerian) concludes that
    “It is unlikely that African leaders will have the necessary political will to empower the African Court and allow its prosecutor a free reign within the ambit of the law. Until then the best assurance for international criminal justice is for the ICC to discharge its responsibility as responsibly and impartially as its constitutive instrument requires of it. A balance must be found between the ICC’s desire to prosecute offenders regardless of their office/status and the determination of the AU to ensure the respectable and decent treatment of African leaders”

    Reference is also this article which exposes the hypocrisy of–what-went-wrong-/-/689364/2041572/-/j9y241z/-/index.html

    Many doomsday prophets have predicted before that the ICC would collapse or fail but the ICC is still going strong and African states are the largest member states.

  7. Crying foul for a person who is a perfect candidate for ICC is an obvious way of defeating any future indictment. This is exactly the likes of Kagame and Museveni are doing. If there is an argument about selective justice to be raised, the point of discussion should start at
    1. Who are those ‘Africans’ indicted at the ICC?
    2. Is there any that doesn’t deserve to be in the list?
    3. If those indicted are criminals, why are African privileged kings (leaders) crying foul and want this to be changed?
    4. How does Africa benefit by having those criminals walking freely?
    5. Is Africa not benefiting by having their criminals taken care by an International Court -ICC, than those other countries which have to live with their criminals and probably still doing their criminal acts?

    Africa should not be driven away from justice by individuals who are fearful of themselves being on the line to ICC.

  8. Those who are advocating that Africans ”should take ownership of our mistakes and set up our own institutions where we can hold every one accountable” are correct. If African leaders think that ICC will be free of politics, they are still naive and even foolish. This will never happen. We need an African court that deals with all crimes committed in the continent. ICC is a colonial intstrument. Period.

  9. Africa and The International Criminal Court

    Desmond Tutu in his Lament, “In Africa, Seeking a License to Kill” New York Times October 10/13 expresses indirectly the absolute essential fundamental need for strong robust civic civil institutions which in Africa are sorely lacking. All Citizens of Africa must be allowed to take their place in civic civil governance institutions which implies that the Citizen be alert and engaged. African Leadership must be encouraged to recognize that an alert engaged citizen is indeed a most valued resource in furthering civil society stability coupled with rule of law respectful adherence. The ICC is a court of final jurisdiction hearing only those cases which exceed moral social parameters implying a fundamental breach in the public social governance process. African Leadership ought to pay heed as time is fast closing on the ‘old ways’ of shareholder governance.

    Monte McMurchy Civic/Civil Institution Strengthening

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